McCarthyism

Elle Says:

I absolutely adore Melissa McCarthy.  I despised Bridesmaids.

I know, I know; this is an absolutely ludicrous position to take that will at the very least cause outrage but will probably cause large-scale metropolitan riots. OK, that may be a bit of exaggeration, but exaggeration is going to be exactly my point – hold on to that thought.

Bridesmaids was a landmark comedy if for no other reason than it got so much buzz: it brought to the fore discussions and debates about women and their comedic talents. Perhaps “despise” is too strong a word to describe my reaction to the film. After all, I agree with Linda Holmes’s praise on the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast that the relationship between Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph was not only hilarious but also real, representative of women’s actual friendships and conversations. It broadened the scope of what women in comedy could actually do besides just playing certain roles determined by their gender – e.g. the dumb blonde, the wife or girlfriend, the “cute” comedienne, etc.

However, Bridesmaids failed to broaden the role of the plus-size woman in comedy.  If nothing else, it solidified and exaggerated the stereotype that the fat woman is the funny one, the weird one, the one capable not of beauty or wit but of base humor or bawdiness.  The exaggeration of the fat actress’s waistline is in direct proportion to the fat character’s ugliness or capacity for comic relief.

Think of other overweight comediennes from pop culture: Roseanne Barr, Rosie O’Donnell, Kirstie Alley (on and off again), Liza Minelli (Arrested Development props), Kathy Kinney (as Mimi on The Drew Carey Show), Mo’Nique, and more.  Often, some other “negative” quality defines them or makes them famous – Roseanne as the sarcastic, blunt mother, Rosie as the brash talker, Liza with the vertigo, Kathy (Mimi) with that makeup.  Not one of them is a lead character because of her beauty or her charms or her great kindness or her magical powers as a half-mortal under the guardianship of two witch aunts and a talking cat.  For example.

Even in Bridesmaids, the only other overweight woman is Rebel Wilson, the Australian actress who plays Brynn, the gross roommate with the bad tattoo and uncomfortably close relationship with her brother. It’s as if her character – as an extension of her “abnormal” or (implied) “unacceptable” body – becomes a repository for all that is unattractive in a woman. That may be a bit strong, but why is it that the only two characters who are overweight are the ones who are “ugly funny”?  All the women in Bridesmaids are exceptionally funny and should be recognized for their comedic achievements, but Rebel Wilson’s and Melissa McCarthy’s characters are only laughed at because of their size, because it’s “grossly” funny when Rebel Wilson lifts up her shirt to show her muffin tops and her infected (and hideous) tattoo, because it’s laughable that Melissa McCarthy’s character, Megan, should be so sexual towards the undercover Air Marshall on the plane (played by real-life husband Ben Falcone).  After all, why would a fat girl think she has the right to be so overtly confident; how could she possibly think she’s attractive?

Obviously, I don’t actually give these questions merit, but I do balk at their implications. People might argue that these women are using comedy to embolden themselves, to stop taking shit from everyone who talks about their weight and start owning it to show how amazing they really are.  OK, I’ll grant you that they’re amazing.  But I’m against recognizing that they’re amazing primarily via their physical appearance.  They shouldn’t be amazing because of their relationship with their bodies or, worse, despite their bodies; they should be amazing because they’re wonderful actresses and great comediennes. Why couldn’t they have played the roles of the sickeningly perky newlywed, or the evil, rich bridesmaid, or the mother who’s sick of being a mother?

Melissa McCarthy certainly is a fantastic comedienne, even in Bridesmaids. How can we forget her memorable engagement party scene?*

Megan: Yeah, I just fell off a cruise ship
Annie: Oh shit!
Megan: Yeah ‘oh shit’. Yeah ‘oh shit’! Took a hard, violent fall, kinda pin-balled down there. Hit a lot of railings, broke a lot of shit! I’m not saying I survived, but I thrived. I met a dolphin down there, and I swear to God that dolphin looked, not at me, but into my soul. Into my God damn soul Annie! And it said, ‘I’m saving you Megan’. Not with its mouth, but…I’m assuming telepathically? We had a connection, that I don’t even know..Oh jeez…bla bla! Hey, shut my mouth! You must be Annie’s fella? I’m Megan!
Annie: I’m not with him.
Megan: Oh, all right. I’m glad he’s single, ‘cause I’m gonna climb that like a tree!

That dialogue is hysterically funny, and McCarthy has extraordinary delivery.  Obviously, she’s a smart woman who signed up for this role, to great success.  She’s drawn plenty of attention in the year since the movie was released, most of it for being a plus-size actress.  Her new sitcom, Mike and Molly, earned her an Emmy.  I’ve never seen the show – and perhaps I should – but I dislike the premise of two overweight people beginning a relationship after meeting at an Overeaters Anonymous group, as if that’s the only way they could fall in love.

Criticism of the show reached a shocking peak with the (now infamous) Marie Claire blog post:

So anyway, yes, I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room…I think obesity is something that most people have a ton of control over. It’s something they can change, if only they put their minds to it.

Rightly so, the blogger Maura Kelly received a veritable shitstorm of outrage, and she since apologized.  But the fact of the matter is that Melissa McCarthy has still received a lot of attention because of her weight.

What I want us all to remember is Sookie St. James.  My first introduction to Melissa McCarthy (which led to my lifetime love of her) was on Gilmore Girls as the loveable chef of Stars Hollow.  In that show (admittedly one of my all-time favorites), she was witty, she was cute, she was loveable.  Her best friend was the gorgeous Lorelai, played by Lauren Graham, her husband was the dweeby but sweet produce man Jackson. She was a business woman, a wife, a mother, a confidant, a friend – and never was she fat.

Sookie’s (McCarthy’s) weight was never once referenced on the show, which firmly established the point that it didn’t matter.  Sookie was a woman, a character defined by her personality and the circumstances each episode threw at her – not by her appearance. It allowed us to see how incredibly gorgeous Melissa McCarthy is (she has the most enviable dimples and the cutest giggle) and how gifted she is at verbal and physical comedy. A skinny woman could have played the same role, but she didn’t*.  Melissa McCarthy did – not because of her weight but because of her talent. We need more shows like this, more plus-size actresses cast in roles that are not defined by how “ugly” the makeup crew can make them or how much they can “own” and “make fun of themselves.”  Limitations imposed on overweight or plus-size actresses signals to the rest of us that we, too, are limited – we might only get to date someone if they are also overweight, we might only get the “part” if we make fun of our weight like the rest of the world.  Instead, we need more plus-sized actresses recognized for being good actresses and good women.

Melissa McCarthy’s beauty, talent, and humor: this is why I love her.  And why I would want her to be my bridesmaid in real life.  (Please?)

*Mindy Kaling lists this scene as one of her favorite 11 moments in comedy in her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns.
**The actress originally cast to play Sookie was Alex Bornstein, a much more biting – yet still non-skinny – actress.
***Incidentally, it’s Melissa’s birthday this coming Sunday, August 26.  Happy Birthday!
****Did you know that Melissa is actually Jenny McCarthy’s cousin?

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15 responses to “McCarthyism

  1. Great post. I LOVED her as Sookie! I totally admit to loving Gilmore Girls, too. When I was on mat leave, my teeny baby daughter and I watched the whole series and I’m pretty sure she loved it as much as I did.

  2. Hi Elle, first let me say that I LOVE this blog. I stumbled upon it during my efforts to navigate WordPress and I have to say that I am loving the honesty and conversations. I was especially interested in the post about race and geographical location which I whole heartily agree plays a role in women’s self confidence and weight, but more on that another time.
    While I agree about everything you’ve said about larger women in comedies is true (I mean why isn’t Melissa McCarthy being rescued by Prince Charming?) in this particular movie she stole the show for me. Closer to the end, after they have portrayed her as the over confident “weird” and outlandish girl, there is a scene where she visits Kristin Wiig and you find out that her character,Megan, is actually an uber successful person. She works for the FBI, she owns multiple homes, has lots of money and she bought herself a “big rig” just because she could. You find out that she overcame bullying and made her life what she wanted and that’s why she is confident in who she is and can do whatever the heck she wants. She owns herself. And i love that message. In that moment, she became the only sane,and in control person in that group. I’m absolutely sure I’m getting some of the details and words wrong but it was one of the best scenes in that movie and I have never loved Melissa McCarthy more. Plus! She sure did get the guy SHE wanted and that,to me, speaks to her characters’ confidence in doing whatever the heck she sets her mind to. Not to mention that Megan was smart enough to KNOW he was a marshal! I was a bit sad that they included food in the last scene (or extra scene) where she and her air marshal boyfriend are filming their “tape” i think it set back the point they were trying to make In revealing that Megan was so awesome. Or maybe it furthered the point that she has earned her right to be so self confident? Anyway, that’s just my little opinion on this. Thanks so much for opening this dialogue!

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment – great argument, for sure. I also agree that she had such an affirming moment, but I think the very fact that they DID bring food into it at the end as you pointed out, destroys any positive work they did.

  3. You should watch Drop Dead Diva. The lead character is smart, funny, talented, successful, beautiful, romantically active, and has not yet gone on a diet in the 3 years it has been on the air. Love her. Love the show. Check it out.

    • I’ve seen it! Well, the first 2 seasons at least. Brooke Elliot is so fantastic and beautiful. Maybe a future post?

  4. Gilmore Girls is one of my favourite shows. I was in middle school and high school when it aired, and in addition to Buffy, another longtime love, it was a damn good show for a girl to grow up with.
    I also love that Sookie was real and deep and never once did she or Lorelai behave as though it mattered in their friendship that one was statuesque and more ideally beautiful and the other was shorter and curvier- they were both lovely and funny.
    To be honest, though I adore Melissa McCarthy too, I couldn’t get into Mike and Molly; the supporting cast grossed me out, even though I liked the premise. And I couldn’t watch all of Bridesmaids for the very thing you talk about here- I didn’t like that not only were women behaving badly, but it was basically all the overweight women doing the bad behaving. That, and I guess I don’t much like comedies.
    Regardless, Sookie is still Melissa for me and I don’t think she’s gotten to do anything nearly as good since.

  5. I would love to see more real people in shows and not the idea of what Hollywood says is attractive nor do I want an actress made up to not be attractive like your average person is too ugly for film and like you said playing a role not the fat or ugly person a real character. Good post.

  6. Excellent post! I have also adored Melissa McCarthy since she rocked on “Gilmore Girls” and thought she was really the funniest thing about “Bridesmaids.” As hilarious as she is, I think her most endearing quality is her relatability. Who could forget her complete shock and heart-warming speech when she won the Emmy? Now THAT is a woman I want to see more of. Size be damned.

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  8. I loved Melissa in Samantha Who. She is a great actress and I would love for her to stick around for a while. There is too much propaganda about heaviness being OK. It is not. People that are thin do not have a special gene that others don’t. Diabetes is rampant in my family for the ones that gain way too much weight as they get older. As long as you move doing something and don’t pig out on all the comfort food you want, you have a chance of being near a normal weight in your life. I am approximately 5’4″ and have never been over 165 lbs, which is alot for my tiny frame. I have been a little as 95 lbs, way too thin! I yo-yo, but try to keep it between 120-130 ideally. Depending on what is going on in your life, it is easy to medicate with food and it can sneak up on you.

    • I didn’t really get into Samantha Who, but I’m sure Melissa was great in it. Regarding your comment about “propaganda about heaviness being OK”: first, I don’t regard this as “propaganda”; we have no intention of harming anybody. Second, we don’t think obesity is OK; a huge part of our blog is our own attempts to lose weight and be healthy, proving that we don’t think “heaviness is OK”. Third, another huge goal of ours is to prove that the struggles of losing weight are, for a lot of people, more difficult than just moving and not pigging out – it’s often a very deep, painful, psychological struggle. Finally, we’re not trying to support Melissa McCarthy as a way of arguing that being overweight or obese is OK; the point of this post was to say that if a person is heavy, he/she should not only be identified by body weight or appearance. That kind of thinking can impede the process of getting to a healthy weight. It seems that plus-size actresses like Melissa are severely limited in the roles that Hollywood producers (and audiences) want them to play, and that shouldn’t be the case.

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